During my senior year in high school, my football coach referred to me as a “great athlete.” I was shocked but ecstatic that he would say such a thing. That was NOT how I saw myself. I had had minimal interest in athletics most my life, never finding deep personal fulfillment on any particular team, preferring to spend time reading books. Playing sports (when I did) was mostly a pathway for acceptance from peers. But with those words, uttered from a man who had driven us hard into the Oregon State Quarter Final Playoffs (where we were soundly defeated), I felt as if I had found myself. Soon after the season ended, the same coach encouraged me to try out for a college team (albeit a small one). I was pumped with a new and alluring picture of myself: Jeff the athlete!
What am I, really?
It wasn’t until a long conversation a month later with my girlfriend (who would eventually be my wife) that I faced what was really going on inside. I didn’t really want to play football. It was the newly-embraced athletic image that I was seeking to maintain. Even then, however, I did not yet realize that I was seeking a narrow, two-dimensional picture of myself that could easily answer the question, “who am I?” Being an athlete was such an easy, ready-made handle that was difficult to let go of.
I ended up not playing any sports in college. And the answer to my question remained elusive. Even as I tried various activities and jobs over the next few years, I was unable to compress myself into a neat and tidy manageable understanding of who or what I was.
Lesson learned: The longing for a clarified identity never leaves. I always feel driven to center my self-understanding on that one thing that makes me feel unique, that I can do better than those around me, or that just makes me feel good.
Child of God at My Core
Many years passed before I began to explore what an identity centered on being a child of God truly means. Seeing myself as God’s son changed everything. But I had overlooked it for so long. There are many biblical references to this being what God’s intention had been all along. And slowly, I came to realize that embracing this identity protected me from turning myself into an object. As a child of God, I would not be dependent on any biological, emotional, intellectual, financial, sexual, or vocational quality that may or may not be there when I would need something solid to hold onto.
I saw that the implications of this identity are enormous.
My usefulness is not set according to what I do, what I produce, or how I perform. My value is not determined by my net worth, the shape of my body, or any particular skillset I may or may not have. I am not defined according to the highs or lows of my emotions, mental state, sexual desires, or lack of them. I am not a one- or two-dimensional object. Instead, I am first a child of God because that was always his intention (Ephesians 1:5), and Jesus came to make it possible (John 1:12). And the sooner I can fully embrace at the core-level of my being that this is where I find myself, the sooner the other parts of me will align themselves in the way that makes me who I was meant to be.
No particular sin or bad behavior is going to explain or define me anymore. There are times when I hear a Voice telling me that the attitude of my heart, the harsh words that just rolled off my tongue, or the unloving behavior toward someone I can’t relate to is not fitting for a son of God. I then am given the choice to agree and ask for renewed help in living more closely aligned to my true identity. The Voice doesn’t condemn me. The Fatherly tones remind me of who I am and how I can grow to best represent the eternal household I am now a member of.
And neither does a traumatic event need to become or remain the center of how I view myself. When I look in the mirror and see that the person looking back is first and foremost a child of God, life-giving options are available to me. I have a Heavenly Father to show me what is true and where I have been believing lies about Him, about myself, and about life in general. He is there to comfort, strengthen, redirect, and heal. He is there to define me, not the evil exploitations and confusing occurrences of the world. He is my Maker. He is my Father. He is the One who knows, beneath all the layers of hurt, betrayal, and disappointment, who I really am.
A Life-long Pursuit
And the quest doesn’t diminish or end as the years tick away. Even as a grandfather now, questions of identity still arise. The temptation is always to center myself on past accomplishments, painful failures, certain feelings, looking and dressing a certain way, producing value of some kind that impresses others. Yet, even with increased wrinkles, thinning and graying hair, deteriorating muscle mass, and lower energy levels, I am still first and foremost my Heavenly Father’s kid. I am a son. And as long as I keep that at the forefront of my thinking, I am at peace, regardless my social or financial status. And I can view and participate in the world around me with hopeful expectation.
We all are multi-faceted beings. It’s part of our design. You and I are amazingly complex in our capabilities, interests, and passions. But we easily get lost trying to find or create ourselves on our own terms. And those perplexing pieces of our makeup seem to always be changing – and often not for the better. To build a life-long identity around any temporary state of being is short-sighted at its best and foolish and devastating at its worst.
My early attempts to define myself through sports and later on as a parent, a teacher, a minister and a host of other culturally-affirmed activities, roles, and states of being led to multiple dead ends. The truth was always right there in front of me. Before the foundation of the world I was meant to be a child of God (Ephesians 1:4-5). You were meant to be a child of God. That’s where it begins and ends. Good, life-giving, and eternal things grow out of that core reality when it’s fully embraced.
We are so much more!
Give up objectifying yourself. You are more than that thing, that event, that activity, that peer group, that career, that cause. Through Jesus, you are God’s kid, a member of His family. That’s what He sees and all that will ever really matter.
It’s time to start living it.